The Execution of Mariamne the Queen

Mariamne Leaving the Judgment Seat of Herod (1887), by Pre-Raphaelite painter John William Waterhouse. This picture is all over the internet as the only attempt to illustrate her life and death. There is a legend about her in Jewish sources. “According to Talmudic legend, when the rebelling slave, Herod, had killed all the other members of her royal family Mariamne threw herself from the palace roof to her death rather than marry him; Herod then preserved her body in honey for seven years” (Jewish Encyclopedia and for two.) What the legend illustrates is an attempt to redeem Mariamne from being a sinner for marrying a “strange” man and defiling the royal bloodline for all times. It will change everything.

In the last post, Alexandra had prevailed upon Cleopatra to make Marc Antony demand that Herod come to Egypt to defend himself for killing her son, Mariamne’s younger brother; the seventeen-year-old Hasmonean High Priest Jonathan Aristobulus. But now another woman is heard from: Salome, Herod’s sister who had hated Mariamne since those three years trapped with her on Masada—Mariamne took great freedoms and reproached the rest for the meanness of their birth. She told Herod that Mariamne had been unfaithful to him with her own husband and their uncle Joseph while he was gone. Herod had left his uncle Joseph to guard his wife and her mother during his absence with secret orders to kill them if he did not return. Herod confronted Mariamne in private, but she convincingly denied any impropriety and Herod again made a declaration of his love for her… until…she said too much…

Mariamne said, Yet was not that command thou gavest (to his uncle Joseph), that if any harm came to thee from Antony, I, who had been no occasion of it, should perish with thee, a sign of thy love to me?” When these words were fallen from her, the king was shocked at them, and presently let her go out of his arms, and cried out, and tore his hair with his own hands, and said, that now he had an evident demonstration that Joseph had had criminal conversation with his wife; for that he would never have uttered (his secret orders) unless there had been such a great familiarity between them. And while he was in this passion, he had liked to have killed his wife; but being still overborne by his love to her…he only gave order to slay Joseph without permitting him to come into his sight; and as for Alexandra, he bound her, and kept her in custody, as the cause of all this mischief. Antiquities of the Jews XV.III.9

Cleopatra and Antony Lose to Octavian

Then Cleopatra and Antony lost their war with Octavian and both more or less commit suicide. Herod had backed Antony and it was very likely that he would lose the kingdom this time. He sped to Rome to change his allegiance to Octavian who will soon be known to the New Testament world as Augustus Caesar. He also needed to hedge his bets. The only Hasmonean male left alive that could contest him for the kingdom was old Hyrcanus, his wife’s grandfather. Herod had him quietly killed before he left for Rome.

Mariamne Rebels

While Herod was gone, word had come that he was dead.   Unbeknownst, Herod rushed home to share his good news–he was still King–with Mariamne. He sent for her, and she came but when he told her of his fortunes, she moaned and said that it was not good news for her. Herod was shocked that she would show her displeasure so openly to her King. They limped along for a while but when he next called her to his bed, she refused, saying she could no longer sleep with the man who had killed her brother and her grandfather.

The Queen on Trial

Secure in his new friendship with Augustus, Herod brought Mariamne to trial. When his friends saw that he was serious, not just in another excitable snit of passion, they sentenced her to death—for unchastity. His advisers thought that she should not be killed but only imprisoned or the people would riot. Salome, however, pushed hard to have her put to death immediately for the same reason. If she was imprisoned, the people would certainly riot. At last Herod gave word to have Mariamne executed.

Josephus then does an odd thing; he gives us a glimpse of a look that transpired between Mariamne and her mother moments before she is strangled:

When Alexandra observed how things went, and that there were small hopes that she herself should escape the like treatment from Herod, she changed her behaviour to quite the reverse of what might have been expected from her former boldness, and this after a very indecent manner; for out of her desire to shew how entirely ignorant she was of the crimes laid against Mariamne, she leaped out of her place, and reproached her daughter…And when she had…been so outrageous as to tear her hair, this indecent dissembling behaviour…was greatly condemned…by the poor woman who was to suffer; for at the first she gave her not a word, nor was discomposed at her peevishness, and only looked at her, yet did she, out of a greatness of soul, discover her concern for her mother’s offence, and especially for exposing herself in a manner so unbecoming her; but as for herself, she went to her death with an unshaken firmness of mind, and without changing the colour of her face, and thereby evidently discovered the nobility of her descent to the spectators, even in the last moments of her life.[1]   Antiquities of the Jews XV.VII.5.

Contrary to Josephus’ sources take on the scene, I think that the look Mariamne gave her mother in the midst of Alexandra’s demeaning display acknowledged that she knew what her mother was up to…that her mother was putting her dignity aside so she could remain at liberty long enough to protect Mariamne’s sons and the rights of their bloodline to the throne.

Alexandra makes a play for the Kingdom

Herod immediately went into a tailspin after Mariamne’s death. He went back to Samaria where they had first been married in a state of “madness” and “distemper.” Alexandra saw her opening…

Now Alexandra abode at this time at Jerusalem; and being informed what condition Herod was in, she endeavoured to get possession of the fortified places that were about the city…(for) those that could get them into their hands had the whole nation under their power…Alexandra, therefore, discoursed with those that had the keeping of those strongholds, that it was proper for them to deliver the same to her, and to Herod (an Mariamne’s) sons, lest, upon his death, any other person should seize upon the government; and that upon his recovery none could keep them more safely for him than those of his own family. Antiquities of the Jews XV.VII.8

It was a nice try but word got to Herod… “so he made no longer delay but gave orders to have her slain.” There was no Cleopatra to help her this time and her grandsons no longer had this ferocious woman to protect them. The boys were sent to Rome to be raised with Augustus. And to this day, Mariamne the Hasmonean Queen is rarely mentioned by her own people because of her sin of marrying Herod…a Daughter of Zion and a daughter of the High Priest had married a strange man…and her sons were half-Herodian. Now, it can be said, the “Asmonean” dynasty came to an end because their heirs to the throne would now be called Herodians.

Josephus will say repeatedly that the charge of unchastity was untrue but that she was too “saucy” a woman and that led to her death.

And thus died Mariamne, a woman of an excellent character, both for chastity and greatness of soul; but she wanted moderation, and had too much of contention in her nature, yet had she all that can be said in the beauty of her body…for while she was most indulgently used by the king, out of his fondness for her…she took too unbounded a liberty. Moreover, that which most afflicted her was what he had done to her relations; and she ventured to speak of all they had suffered by him, and at last greatly provoked both the king’s mother and sister, till they became enemies to her; and even he himself also did the same…Antiquities of the Jews XV.VII.6.

A side note:

Inquiring minds ask…did Herod have Mariamne’s body preserved in honey. There are lots of different versions about that. Herod did go into some kind of mental breakdown after she died, as you will see in the next chapter…I quote some of what Josephus said about Herod after her death…I think that the stories, though, not true, were meant to exonerate Mariamne from her sin of marrying Herod. You would think from the silence about her all these years, that it was her fault alone that the nation and their occupation by Rome and the death of all her family was all her doing, and not that she was subject to the will and dictates of her mother and grandfather Hyrcanus II…Ethnarch and High Priest. She played the roe handed her…for good or ill. wraps up a few of the stories in two paragraphs capsulizing entries in the Talmud that might be old but not recorded until 200-500 CE…you can decide.

….Distraught, Mariamne attempted to commit suicide (when she learned she was to marry Herod), but was unsuccessful. Herod then had her tried and executed. According to the Talmud (Baba Basra 3a), the last Hasmonean was a young princess, and upon hearing that Herod intended to marry her and make her queen she committed suicide. Herod preserved her body in honey so that he could claim that he wed the daughter of a royal house.

When she saw that he [Herod] wanted to marry her, she went up on to a roof and cried out “…I am throwing myself down from this roof.” He preserved her body in honey for seven years. Some say that he practiced necrophilia with her, others that he did not…

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